Monday, 20 September 2010

Multi-Wall - Virtual Collaboration

I'm at the centre of a fantastic development. I have been fortunate enough to combine with Lamasatech, a multi-touch technology company to develop a new approach to collaborative, virtual meetings/workshops.

As I wrote in an article recently:
'Online meetings are now in vogue. There is a plethora of technology companies offering to connect people. However, what stands out more than anything is the fact that it is invariably a ‘one to all’ format – that is: one person ‘presents’ or speaks to the ‘audience’. Especially in Webinars, which is the more commercial end of the market, people present their ideas/expertise in a one-way communication stream. If anyone is on camera at all, it is the presenter and the rest of the audience is hidden from view. Interaction is often limited to writing questions for the presenter to answer, or completing surveys that they offer to the audience. In contrast, ‘Second Life’ (for example see, allows people to interact as avatars/‘characters’ and to visit different locations (e.g. whiteboard and auditorium). People connect voice over the internet (VoIP) and have conversations, which although meaningful, lack ‘depth’. There is little opportunity to work collaboratively. Some other simple programs allow people to draw on whiteboards. This, in many ways, belittles the real nature of collaboration and creativity, reducing the interaction to drawing lines and boxes on a page. 

A Facilitator’s underlying aim when people come together is to ensure effective interaction and to make sure that people engage effectively with the information that they create and develop. When we, as facilitators, think about virtual meetings, our primary focus is on whether the technology will enhance or interfere with the collaboration; and the ability of the people to tackle issues, solve problems, shape ideas, develop solutions and create new patterns of thinking. Consequently, if we are to facilitate ‘virtual meetings’ of people in different locations, and get the interaction we strive for, we need technology that suits the philosophy we adhere to.

One of the newest and possibly most exciting advances is multi-touch technology - see to view one of the early research models. It enables people to interact and handle data simultaneously, using multiple touches. Many of us will have experienced touch screens (e.g. buying tickets at a train station) and end-users are now beginning to explore what it could mean for them. Early multi-touch screens were merely ‘toys’, for example, moving photos around, flipping them and re-sizing them. Those of you who saw ‘Minority Report’ will have seen Tom Cruise handling data using a form of multi-touch. In ‘Indecent Proposal’ Michael Douglas was ‘flicking pages of information using a virtual ‘glove’. Now, following the ‘research’ and these early science fiction examples have come the ‘development’ and practical application. Hospitals are developing the use of multi-touch screens to allow the doctor to show different aspects of data to aid patient understanding. Police are experimenting, using multi-touch screens to display crime scene information. 

‘Facilitation Multi-Wall’ is in its development stage. It offers the opportunity to connect people/groups from different locations and enables them to interact with the same data, at the same time. If you would like to see an early prototype of Facilitation Multi-Wall being demonstrated go to: 

Working at a multi-touch screen at their own location, people will be able to upload the data, which could be a technical drawing/diagram, spreadsheet, or any other document they wish to explore/discuss. As the short video shows, the participants can also send electronic post it notes via their mobile phones. Users can send them one at a time or in batches; this way the facilitator can ensure that there is equality of participation. Once the data is on screen anyone, anywhere will be able to move it and add to it. In addition the software can offer a wide range of techniques (e.g. electronic post its), tools (e.g. fishbone diagram, force field, four box model, etc.) and even client’s own organisational models.

The aim is that each participating group could be seen and or heard via audio and/or video, displayed in the corner of the screen, likewise the facilitator, who could also be at a remote location. If those taking part in the activity decide, then data can be ‘broken off’ and taken by one of the groups to work on and brought back to the forum when completed. The data could be moved to another multi-touch screen in the same room/location or at a distant location as the technology enables groups anywhere to work in this technological environment.

The multi-touch screen, with its ability to enable simultaneous, real-time interaction can offer a new level of collaboration. It can be used for a wide variety of ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ where people need to engage with each other and handle visual data and information. The use of the multi-touch, multi-screen application can enhance virtual multi-location meetings and workshops. The real challenge will be to get groups up from sitting at the table and working at the ‘wall’. However, we as facilitators, have a great tradition of encouraging groups to change their traditional style of working. Using the multi-touch screen on the wall will not only be a novel experience for some but an enriching one as well.

I will be demonstrating the multi-wall at the upcoming IAF Conference in Helsinki (15th - 17th October. If you would like more information please contact me:

In the book: 'Participate for a Change' that I have recently written I am compelled to conclude that 
'... despite all the theory that supports a 'participative' style of change, the temptation is always to impose change. Managers see the urgency and the impending external key drivers and their reaction is to make change happen. Often the workforce is seen as an obstacle to change. They anticipate resistance and indeed many of the change models predict that resistance. In 2010 in the UK several very large organisations such as British Airways and the Royal Mail face the need to make radical changes to the way they operate if they are to remain competitive. To date the workforce has been resistant, even hostile, to changes in their working practices and there has been a breakdown in relations between management and the Unions. As Facilitators and change agents we need to be aware of the potential for resistance to change and be ready to forestall it with effective participatory activity. Nevertheless it is important to face head on the question of when to impose change and when to engage in a participative process. It is also important to see the consequences of both approaches and recognise the advantages and disadvantages of both.

If the workforce has a high vested interest in the status quo then management has to decide whether the risk to the business is so serious that it cannot afford to engage them in the change process. However, the consequences of not engaging the workforce can be even more disruptive to the business than the external threat. Faced with imposed change workers/employees often withdraw their emotional support for the organisation and as a result their input, positive contribution and enthusiasm reduces, which in itself can be as harmful as the external threat. If there is a high vested interest in the status quo and a high risk to the survival of the business then management may choose to drive change through. However, the aim should always be to engage the workforce in the change process because even if it is slower in the beginning, it will be more productive and reduce resistance in the long run.